Challenges outside combat

Author: Andrew /

D&D is a game with teeth. Combat is a big part of that. For some players, that's all there is for them. A lot of times, combat can, by it's own nature, overtake most other aspects of the game. If you look at the books, most things in there are combat related. Your character class is usually (by most players) chosen by players thinking "How do I want to function in combat?" because that is usually something that can't be tweaked. You class does certain things and other classes do other things. "Such is the way of the world"... right?

Well, I want to bring to light something that occurred to me when having a conversation with a gaming buddy of mine, and that is the existence, and importance of challenges OTHER than combat. The fact that a game can be challenging, exciting, invigorating, enticing and just downright fun without combat. Now, I know there are some gamers out there who would cry "blasphemy" at that but I stand by it. I think that it's very true. Here's some reasoning behind my thoughts.

When I game, and I'm sure this is the same for most other gamers as well, I love memorable moments. I think it's great when there are spots in the game that just stick with you that you just constantly remember because of how great it was. Now, usually something will stick like that when it's extraordinary in some way. It needs to stand out. With combat, that's actually a tad difficult because it's expected. In most sessions you (as a player) expect at least one fight, if not several. One way that combat itself can take itself down is when it's treated as a formality. "We're fighting goblins, lets get it out of the way, roll dice, make sure they're dead and we're not." I think instead, combat itself needs to be kept fresh and be set within the story and have context so that fighting isn't done for the sake of fighting (and I know a lot of DM's will put fights in there because they feel that a session without a fight is incomplete). If you must fight goblins, then by all means fight them, but give it a reason! Perhaps they're minions of a powerful black dragon hatching a scheme deep in an underground lair and the goblin raiding parties are really parties sent out to gather resources like wood and scrap metal for the dragon's machinations. If they want to draw out the dragon, perhaps they do some detective work to track down the goblin raiding parties and kill them off in order to draw out the dragon so they could have home field advantage! That makes the goblin battles a little more important.

But outside combat, and more important, I think, is the idea of a non combat challenge. Say that a player wants to own a shop, but they have competition in the town. What's the player do to rise above the competition? Kill the other shop owners himself? Hire someone to do it? Scope out the competitions goods and prices? Send hired hands around to take notes for him so he can adjust his goods himself? Trial and error? Curry the favor of a wealthy patron perhaps? Create high status through elitist behavior, claiming to only cater to a high society clientele? There are many ways to achieve this task, many opportunities for role play, character development and story development!

Perhaps another challenge might be hearing that city officials are being assassinated and you know that the baron, who you've seen to be a good man, is in mortal peril and you've got to help him. Perhaps that means becoming his personal guard. Perhaps that means placing someone in his stead and smuggling him out of the city. Perhaps, if you're the type, it even means finding the assassins so you can talk to them and see why they're doing this. Who knows, perhaps there's more than meets the eye?

There is also another breed of challenge that (players, listen up) the DM cannot engineer! There are challenges that you, the players, can create for yourselves. Depending on the choices you make, you can put yourselves in interesting positions where you can make the game your own and really put a spin on things. Perhaps you decide "Well, I'm a human, but I really want to get into the Drow (evil dark elves) city and what's more, I want a position of authority within the city." Well there's one heck of a challenge and one that the DM probably didn't see coming. How do you want to go about it? A classic disguise? Illusion magic? Blackmail? Brute force?

The point I'm getting at with all this is that I think the focus needs to come off combat, and if in your own experiences it is off, then keep it off. Combat, if it degrades to throwing dice and half-lidded stares from the people at the table (DM included), then it's not necessary. Each game should be an adventure and an experience with things that break the mold.

You remember those memorable moments I was talking about earlier? Well, those are created by doing original things. By getting creative and active with the game and taking situations into your own hands. Have fun, get crazy, get inventive! Those memorable moments will come when you do what's not expected and really stretch the bounds of what you thought you could do.

Well, with that, please comment away, as any thoughts are much appreciated! Thanks for reading!



silent stone said...

There is a saying: If all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail. Which is to say, if you only have a certain set of tools, you begin thinking strictly in terms of what those tools can do. Which is to say, the D&D rules are by and large a combat resolution system, and so, the tendency is to try and solve all problems with the available tool: the combat resolution system. So it comes as little surprise to me that combat is a big focus of D&D games.

It also is reinforced by the way we "market" D&D to potential new players: do we tell them that D&D is a game about decapitating orcs and shooting fireballs at dragons, or do we tell them that it is a game where you can set up a general store and sell buckwheat to dwarves? (well, when I try to describe the game, at first I will most often say it's a game where you can do anything, but when you get down to specifics...)

I agree that combat should not be the entirely of any D&D experience, and utilizing the whole spectrum of possibilities that the game offers should be a goal for every DM, period.

However, the onus shouldn't be entirely on the DM. I really think that the official published materials need to emphasize non-combat play more. I mean, it's in there, but then again, WotC hasn't published a book full of premade skill challenges you can use in your campaign, or a guide to roleplaying your character to the fullest, but they have put in print 9,001 books full of new combat options for your character and new monsters to throw at your players.

They're getting better about this, but so far, pretty much all we have is a hammer, and so, we must fight the illusion that everything is a nail.

And now I forgot what point I was trying to make.

Andrew said...

You made your point perfectly, Silent and I totally agree. We're given a tool that's put in large prominence so we try to resolve our problems in the game via that solution. I think that the idea of a D&D guide to Role Playing would be amazing as would a book of solid skill challenges from political encounters to chases to thievery. I think that would just be an amazing tool that I know would sell like hotcakes.

Zato2TWO said...

The World of Darkness core rulebook actually makes a good point about combat in roleplay sessions. When violence happens, it's a point of extreme tension and adrenaline. Think about your everyday life; if you had gotten in a scuffle (not even a seriously big one), it'd have a HUGE impact on your day. Someone sees you the next day with bruised knuckles and a swollen cheek the size of Ontario and they ask "What happened?", and the next thing you know, you and your friends are talking about your brawl with the hobo in the subway for the next two weeks.

For the average person, fights are a big deal. Of course, World of Darkness assumes you're playing an everyday guy in the real world, where in D&D, you may simply have a character who lives and breathes combat. Combat in D&D comes and goes like the afternoon bus, so it doesn't really seem like combat is much of a big deal.

So then lies the question: how DO you make combat a big deal? Well, part of what makes World of Darkness battles so intense is that BECAUSE you're a normal guy, you CAN'T take a battle axe to the chest and keep standing. The fight becomes more perilous because his mortality is made apparent, and his frailty gives him reason to panic. He's not an adventurer, he's not a fighter, and for all he knows he could *die* right here and now.

I think that's what needs to happen to make a D&D encounter more exciting: let the players become aware of their own mortality. 4th Ed's core design is a double-edged sword; they tweaked every class to make it such that ANYONE can be good and powerful, which is great because being powerful is fun. However, being powerful ALSO makes you lose sight of the idea that your character has HP for a reason, and that they CAN, in fact, fall below zero.

So how do you threaten the mortality of a man who snaps dragon spines in two with his pinky? Well, sometimes just a broad description of the circumstances surrounding a conflict can help to escalate its perilous-ness. An encounter with goblins in a cave isn't too exciting... but what if those goblins had cornered you on a bridge above a deep chasm and their alarm was going off, with their hordes of goblin reinforcements in bound at *any moment*? A fight in the evil wizard's tower may seem hum-drum at first, but what if the last spell he just cast broke the tower's foundations, and with a rumble in every step, the whole tower threatens to just topple over!?

I may seem like I'm getting off topic (or that I was never ON topic to begin with), but this has everything to do with what we're discussing. The problem we're facing is that combat in 4th edition is so pronounced that it becomes almost formulaic and, dare I say, routine. If we combine what was discussed earlier with what I've brought to the table, we have an incredibly interesting game on our hands. Non-combat encounters that hinder the party's progress and force them to come up with a creative solution to the problem, eventually building up to a climactic encounter that's HARDLY routine, and has some contextual flavor. In order to refresh the excitement of battle in our fantasy group, we take a twofold path: in one, we emphasize the importance of struggle without violence and force players to look at other aspects of themselves and make them realize that they are more than armor, weapons and big numbers. In the other, we emphasize the danger of combat situations to such a degree that the player can't simply rely on what's on his character sheet to save him, when external circumstances threaten him.

I've got a whole bunch of other stuff to write about on this, but I wanna stop it here to give you all a chance to discuss =O

Andrew said...

I agree. It just takes more thinking around the situation and external things that could influence the mood of a fight. I think what I was mainly getting at were things that weren't combat related at all. Conversations, travel, walking down the street, shopping, even going to bed. I think it would be neat if we could (and we can) come up with ideas to emphasize those things. This was mainly a post to get readers to do some creative thinking and inspire some ideas that flow against the traditional mold. Thanks for your thoughts! They were really great. Good to see you on here, too, by the way!

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